I Was Raised by a Narcissist
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
In common with many people who carry trauma from childhood, I was raised by a narcissist. Whilst he was not often physically violent, I experienced his presence in my life as a daily threat to my emotional and psychological survival. The need to defend myself against the danger he represented shaped the choices I was able to make as a child, and continued to have a profound influence on the way I lived my life in adulthood.
From a narcissist’s perspective, the world around them is defined in terms of his or her own needs: consciously or otherwise, it’s all about them. Other people - including their own children - are important to the extent to which they either meet, or frustrate, those needs. Others exist in the narcissist’s orbit, without ever fully being allotted the right to their own individuality, or their own needs.
All of us are narcissists in the early developmental stages of life. We act and behave as if the world revolves around us, and appropriately so: we are utterly helpless and dependent and could not survive without the attention of others. If conditions are favourable and the caregivers around us are well enough attuned, then the experience of our environment is that when we feel a need, someone will be there to meet it. Our experience of the world is one of essential safety. Those who remain lodged in narcissism, however, whether it’s the ordinary self-centredness we all feel at times, or more extreme, pathological forms of narcissism, are the ones who became stuck in that early stage.
We only move beyond a developmental stage if our needs at the time were sufficiently well satisfied. Developing a healthy sense of self as we move through the different phases of childhood depends on interactions with parents, and other important figures, who are emotionally available enough to meet our needs. When our caregivers are anxious, depressed, angry, traumatized or absent in other ways, they may be incapable of meeting us on a consistent basis. Many of us have grown up under conditions of what psychologist Alan Schore calls “proximal separation”: our caregivers were physically present but were either too wrapped up in their own needs (and/or too intent on using others to fulfill those needs) to be emotionally available to us. Instead of experiencing our caregivers as a resource in our lives, we may have found we needed to protect ourselves from them in some way.
In this context, we grow up believing our worth is ascribed to us by other people. We are of value only to the extent that we are able to satisfy the needs of those around us. Because the pain that is driving the narcissist’s behaviour is inexhaustible, those needs could never be satisfied of course. Whatever we did, it was never enough and therefore we grow up believing that whoever we are, whatever we do, can never be enough. Children of narcissists generally carry the nagging, persistent feeling that they are not measuring up in some way. There is always another box to be ticked, another task to be completed; always a better version of themselves they are working towards.
In order to cater to the needs of the narcissistic parent, our own needs had to be set aside. Our development in certain areas of life remained incomplete. Working with modalities like Somatic Experiencing, we can begin to complete some of the thwarted impulses and needs that we weren’t able to attend to at the time, and come more into the present moment, where the connection and resources that were lacking in childhood are more available to help support us in moving forward and integrating that which is still unresolved and fragmented in us. However big the task may seem, there is always hope. The damage we experienced didn’t happen overnight in most cases, and it will not be resolved overnight either. But with skilled support, determination and self-compassion we can move mountains.
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